About three or four years ago when I decided to try and improve my health I decided to go all in on supplementation, trying all sorts of things that were supposed to help, and reading tons of books, cross referencing lists all the authors had of essential supplements, and seeing which ones each doctor included. I've also looked at websites and journal articles and experimented a ton, probably wasting a bit of money. But I've come to a list of good supplements to help in times of stress which I use even now. So that everyone else doesn't have to do the same work I did (including the expensive 23andMe and SpectraCell nutrition testing) I've decided to share the information in one place. Some basic notes on supplementation:
1. It's better to get nutrition from food. A standard disclaimer, if you think you're low on zinc, it's better to buy pumpkin seeds as a snack than buying some pills. You can't eat pizza and beer and take pills to make a shitty diet ok. However, some nutrients are intermittently available (like vitamin D), or your body burns through them quickly, or are better in concentrated doses, and in those cases supplementation makes sense.
2. Multivitamins are a waste. To make an affordable pill with every nutrient in it, companies either use cheap forms of a nutrient the body cannot absorb, or include tiny amounts. It's better to just target the nutrients you need and eat a healthy diet than try and fix everything with a cheap multivitamin.
3. Supplementing is serious business. Nutrients carry variable amounts of risk. Water soluble vitamins like vitamin C go out with your pee if you take to much. If you "overdose" you might get diarrhea. Fat soluble vitamins like vitamin A can kill you. Arctic explorers forced to subsist off polar bear liver ate too much vitamin A, and since it was stuck in their fat, they died painful deaths bleeding from the eyes. This isn't to say you can't supplement vitamin A (it's good in cod liver oil) but you need to be sensible, and contact a doctor if you have any questions or have any medical conditions. Risk tends to be lowest with water soluble vitamins and minerals, more danger with fat soluble. Herbs can vary based on if they're traditionally food (garlic) or something more exotic. Take care with pregnancy, nursing, have liver or kidney problems or other chronic conditions.
4. Supplementing takes time. Your body can only absorb so much of a vitamin at a time. You're looking at taking a pill a day for several months rather than downing it over a week. Results may not be immediate or may be subtle.'
With this out of the way, I've broken up my recommendations into categories based on how solid the scientific consensus is, whether I've noticed an effect personally, or if something is expensive or optional.
Universal Scientific Consensus
These are supplements with solid agreement among the literature, doctors, personal experience, that I would feel recommending to almost anyone because of the low risk-high benefit.
1. Vitamin D3. Vitamin D is so essential your body makes its own, from sunlight. However, people get less sunlight now, and the crucial months in the Northern Hemisphere are in summer from around 10am to 2pm. You're probably not getting enough. Low levels of vitamin D have been correlated with many illnesses, from depression to cancer, although whether disease causes low vitamin D or vice versa is unknown. Take vitamin D3, cholicalciferol, which is fat soluble. It is possible to get too much D3 so if concerned get a lab test done to determine your levels. A conservative dose taken with food or in a gelcap with olive oil is unlikely to cause problems.
2. Magnesium. The "relaxation mineral" electrolyte that allows muscles to unclench is also used in a ton of metabolic processes. Caffeine, sugar, stress, antacids, and alcohol deplete it. War refugees were found to be excreting magnesium in their urine: Even if you are getting enough from food, if you are in a high stress situation, you are probably wasting it. You cannot overdose from magnesium, you just get diarrhea. Magnesium oxide, found in most vitamins, is useless. Get magnesium citrate (which may have a laxative effect), glycinate (which does not have a laxative effect), or malate. Also an option is epsom salts, since magnesium can be absorbed directly through the skin. My chronic muscle stiffness, causing me to fear I was getting carpal tunnel, has basically disappeared since I started taking magnesium and taking epsom salt baths.
3. Fish Oil. Basically a food item, as long as you get a brand that is distilled to be low in mercury this is also safe. If you have sustainability concerns, krill oil is also an option. There is debate as to whether fish or krill oil is better, but I can't determine who is right. Evidence on cardiac health seems to be under some scrutiny, but fish oil is used as a prescription medication to reduce blood triglycerides. It also contains essential omega 3 oils. DHA is used to build your nervous system, and EPA is an anti-inflammatory that can aid with depression. I have not felt any immediate effect from taking fish oil, but the process of integrating omega 3 fats into your body is a long term project.
Compelling Personal Evidence, With Scientific Support
1. Methyl Folate. The supplement that convinced me that supplements actually could work. Methyl folate is a methylated, or active form, of folic acid. There is a very common genetic mutation (MTHFR) that prevents people from being able to activate synthetic folic acid, the kind in enriched flour and bread. If you don't have the mutation, taking pre-activated methyl folate doesn't hurt you, but if you do have the mutation, taking methyl folate is like having a switch in your body turned on for the first time. I've never taken a vitamin C pill and felt different, but methyl folate worked immediately. Folate and B12 work synergistically, so if you can find a vitamin B complex that has both methyl folate AND methyl B12 that's your best bet, as you don't want your body to only work one side of the cycle and not the full thing. I take a complex called B-Right, which also contains P-5-P, the active form of B6. People I've recommended these activated vitamins to have reported improvements in energy, depression, migraine headaches, and other chronic problems. The difference in the more pricey pre-activated forms of these vitamins and the cheap kinds used to enrich food is night and day.
2. Ashwagandha. An ancient Ayurvedic herb alleged to be an "adaptogen" or herb that rebalances your body's systems. Scientific proof for "adaptogens" is shaky, but ashwagandha does have studies with proven effects. It assists with reported levels of well being and reduces effects of chronic stress, and up to a 30% level reduction in blood cortisol (the stress hormone). I can vouch for this one myself, as the last two years have been extremely stressful, and ashwagandha has helped me manage stress and social anxiety in dramatic ways. Make sure to buy from a reputable supplement company, as some supplements purchased over the internet have been found to contain high levels of toxic heavy metals.
Compelling Evidence, Further Experimentation Needed
1. Inositol. I had never heard of this nutrient, once considered vitamin B8 until it was discovered that the body could make its own, until my nutrition test came back saying I was borderline deficient in it. Apparently, levels of inositol are reduced in people with depression. It's unknown which way the causation lies, but high doses of inositol can be used to fight depression, anxiety, insulin resistance, and it has also been used with success in treating PCOS. Inositol is used by the body to allow cells to communicate, which explains how it's useful for both insulin sensitvity and neurotransmission. I have supplemented with it and haven't felt any great effect, although the doses needed for drastic effect tend to be rather high. Something to keep an eye on.
2. Alpha Lipoic Acid and N-Acetyl Cysteine. I had never really heard of the body's main antioxidant, glutathione, until I also came back borderline deficient in it. Glutathione is in every cell, and is correlated with illness much like vitamin D: people with cancer, depression, AIDS, diabetes, etc have lower glutathione. It's the main line of defense against free radicals and toxins like alcohol in the liver. Your body makes its own, and you can't take a glutathione pill because your body just digests it. So there are two ways you can make more: One is to take N-Acetyl Cysteine, which provides the body with cysteine, which is rare and the limiting factor in glutathione production. If you go to the emergency room with a Tylenol overdose, you're given NAC to try and save your liver. The second is Alpha Lipoic Acid, which helps your body recycle the used up glutathione it's already made. I've taken both, and it's difficult to say which works better, or how much glutathione I have now, or what effects it has (it's all on a cellular level). Still, both supplements are considered largely safe, nontoxic, and are easily available. NAC has been used to treat mental illness and addiction, and ALA has been used to treat liver damage and diabetic nerve pain. Both are potent and are things you can research if you're curious.